Welcome to Race on Campus. About six years ago, the University of Connecticut at Storrs started Scholars House, a living-learning community for Black undergraduate men. The program aimed to improve retention and foster a sense of belonging among Black men, who often felt isolated on campus. Here’s how the program has gone so far and what the university has learned along the way.

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A Place to Belong

In the mid-2010s, the University of Connecticut at Storrs knew there was a spot where it could improve. The flagship campus enrolled a tiny proportion of Black men — about 2.7 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education — and they were graduating at lower rates than men of other races. The six-year graduation rate for undergraduate Black men was 55 percent, compared to 73 percent for men over all.

To curb attrition, encourage more Black men to seek leadership positions, and achieve academic success, the university created “Scholars House,” a residential, “living-learning” community for Black men. The university felt it was losing too many talented Black men who transferred to other institutions after their first or second years, wrote Stephanie Reitz, a university spokeswoman, in an email. Other high-achieving Black men who stayed on campus said that they often felt out of place at the flagship and struggled to find strong friendships, Reitz wrote.

Since the program’s start in fall 2016, 193 students have participated in the program. The first cohort, which enrolled 50 students, had markedly better graduation rates — 70 percent have graduated, with an average GPA of 3.167. Another 8 percent are on track to graduate, according to the university, though it did not specify a timeline.

While total enrollment for Black men is mostly stagnant — it’s now 2.8 percent — the university says the program is a success given that it’s helping retain current students and draw others to campus, Reitz wrote.

“The ability to attract and retain promising Black male undergraduates has a cyclical effect,” Reitz wrote. “Those who enroll and remain at UConn often share their experiences and insights with others, prompting them to consider applying to join the UConn community as first-year or transfer students.”

Scholars House also weathered a global pandemic, and its leaders have learned important lessons after building the program from the ground up. Here are four of them:

Lesson #1: Make introductions.

When Erik Hines, inaugural faculty director of the Scholars House and now an associate professor in the department of education psychology and systems at Florida State University, crafted the programing, he wanted the program to foster a sense of belonging. Hines said he introduced students to Black professors on campus and told them about campus resources they could access, like internship programs and study-abroad opportunities. In his research, Hines studies college and career readiness for Black men. This work helped inform programming for all students, but especially freshmen, who needed to make the crucial transition from young men to college students.

Lesson #2: Prepare for criticism.

Hines dealt with initial criticism from external voices, like accusations that the program was akin to segregation, he said. The students took classes with other undergraduates, and they understood that the mission was not to separate them from their peers, he said. Administrators completely back Scholars House. This support kept the criticism at bay, and from it becoming too distracting, Hines said.

Lesson #3: Model success.

Michael Bradford, vice provost for faculty, staff, and student development and the current faculty director for Scholars House, took over the program after Hines.

One challenge he faced was figuring out how to support students without using deficit language, or saying and reinforcing that students needed help or were behind in academics.

“How do you support students without saying, ‘Listen, you need support’?” Bradford asked.

The average GPA for enrolled Scholars House students dipped, Bradford said, so he mandated four study-hall hours for students. If a student was on academic probation, they had to attend study hall for four hours, twice a week. He also hired an additional study-hall monitor to help check in with the students.

After that semester, Bradford focused even more on academics. If a student was starting the academic year struggling with a particular course, or had a history of not passing, a tutor from the university’s academic-achievement center would come to the study hall for two hours throughout the semester to help the student.

This year, Bradford hired Scholars House graduates or senior students to help tutor students. It’s another way to show students that their peers are successful and there to support them, he said.

Lesson #4: Don’t underestimate the value of in-person interactions.

The pandemic was a challenge of its own. Bradford said it was initially “devastating.” Living-learning communities like Scholars House are special in part because of their physical presence. When everything moved to virtual learning in March 2020, maintaining a sense of community was harder, he said.

Before the pandemic, every Sunday was community day at Scholars House, Bradford said. A community member or alumnus would come to campus to talk to students about their work or a particular issue, or there would be a discussion among students about identity and culture. These discussions created a space for students to talk about their experience, expand their thinking, and hear from others. At the start of the pandemic, Bradford said he missed these conversations and the community they fostered. Phone calls — even though he was calling three to four people a night — didn’t quite do the trick, he said.

When students began returning to campus in the fall of 2020, freshmen and especially sophomores came to campus really wanting to participate in the community they physically missed out on during virtual learning.

But going into the semester, Bradford expected that some students would struggle academically, given that students everywhere took time to get back into classroom learning and college life after at least a year of virtual learning. He’s careful to monitor students’ academic life and is able to see via a university platform when students miss a tutoring appointment. This information helps him quickly pull students aside or talk to them before there’s a bigger issue.

After the pandemic, Bradford said he won’t be taking for granted the in-person conversations and the influence of physical presence.

Read Up

  • The U.S. Supreme Court will hear two casesbrought by an anti-affirmative-action group against Harvard College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that allege the colleges discriminate against Asian Americans applicants in their admissions processes. (The Chronicle)
  • Students at Dartmouth College have advocated for an Asian American-studies program for decades. Now, given the rise of anti-Asian sentiment, the activists have more support for their cause. (The New York Times)

—Fernanda